Playing America

Play can be effective in times of oppression and strife; bringing people together, generating fun, and encouraging creation of im/possible spaces and futures. Playwork can also be a powerful agent for change, advocating and organising opportunities where play can focus, germinate and multiply. Gathering playworkers together in a dedicated place-for-play accentuates this. It supports ideas, dreams and practice to meet around the campfire and in chance encounters. Through talk, shared experiences and excitement, elusive ‘what-ifs’ become more substantial and plans formed.

I love exploring play and playwork around the world, and in February I flew to California to speak at a Playwork ‘Campference’ and to give a presentation at San Diego’s New Children’s Museum. The campference, run by Pop-Up Adventure Play and Santa Clarita Valley Adventure Play, was (you guessed it) a camping conference located on a not-yet-finished adventure playground. Delegates from all over the US and Canada as well as other nations (including the UK) braved freak gale force winds and rain to attend, learn, and play.


A big welcome from the Santa Clarita Valley AP and Pop-Up crew 

They invited me to talk both about the role of Unite the Union supporting UK playwork, and also on my PhD research investigating the interaction between children and mobile digital technology in outdoor play. Delegates were surprised – and impressed – that the largest union in the UK engaged in supporting playwork. I explained this was due to hard work by playworkers, support from youth and community workers, and backing from Union officials and local branches.

I gave my talk (fortunately not outside) on digital technology during the biggest storm in recent California history. We had to dismantle the campsite /conference venue and move to a local school which we decorated with drying sleeping bags and random soggy possessions. Fuelled with strong coffee we continued, and I gave my talk in bare-feet as my only footwear was too wet to wear! Amongst noteworthy talks from a wide variety of projects across North America, the UK contingent was well represented. Professor Fraser Brown (Leeds Beckett Uni) gave the keynote, Simon Rix (Meriden Adventure Playground) offered alternate paradigms, and Luke Sutton (The Land AP) and (Honourary Brit) Erin Davis showed the film ‘The Land’ to great acclaim.


Rain, wind, then more rain!!

When the storm subsided we returned to the site and rebuilt in true playwork fashion, continuing on in the sunshine. In the spirit of adventure play, the site possessed a real sense of magic and wonder, with tall trees and loose parts. The event felt like the best bits of a conference and festival combined; the fire pit, tasty food (and donated beer) encouraged great conversations and meetings of minds. Another element of added playfulness was the children of delegates who revelled in the freedom of the site and on-tap playworkers.

After the event I travelled  to San Diego and was hosted by the New Children’s Museum. I spent time with their playworkers, who have set up an area full of loose parts which is incredibly popular. This was amongst a collection of avant-garde artist-designed spaces, and it was all exciting and filled with energised children, doing, making and playing. I gave a presentation to Museum Playworkers which was also attended by senior management, so had to adapt on the fly – but I think I pulled it off.


The enthusiasm of all those I met was inspiring. In the UK we have been reeling from cuts to much of what we hold important, and playwork has been particularly affected. In North America, recent political events notwithstanding, they are growing playwork as a profession and experimenting with different ways of facilitating play. These include not only a few long-standing adventure playgrounds, but pop-up events and imaginative community driven models. I was impressed by delegates’ desire to learn and the respect that UK playwork has, and this has made me realise that we in the UK have a lot to give – and learn –  and that we should be proud of what we have accomplished. I’m hoping to get back to North America sooner rather than later, for the energy, good coffee, and generosity of spirit.


Sun 🙂

Playing the Geographical Conference

I’ve just returned from presenting a paper (and listening to others) at the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographer’s Annual International Conference 2016[1]. About 2000 geographers gathered in London to spend four days of talking, debating, listening – and eating and drinking – about pretty well everything to do with geography, and this covers pretty well anything!

So what does this have to do with play/playwork? Actually quite a bit. There’s a really keen discourse running through various strands of human geography that’s either relevant to play/playwork or directly looks at play and children’s lives. This ranges from theories on use of space, mobilities, non/more than representational theories, to the work of children’s geographers. Hardly surprisingly they have a great interest in play and the word ‘playworker’ is greeted with interest even if not a great deal of understanding. At least we’re not automatically assumed to be childcare/early years/educationalists!

There’s an active, in face fairly cutting edge group who are part of a research group covering geographies of children, young people and families, and they put on a number of the sessions I attended. Some of the papers looked at playing with mud; at play opportunities for children in high-rise buildings in India; playfulness as expressed in the urban public space, child carers in Malawi, and of course my own contribution! ‘Collective agency and everyday affordances: assembling children and young people’s play’. One session that I found particularly relevant given my research was a series of papers on ‘Apps, mobiles and technologies: innovative methodologies in research with children, young people and families’.

Discussions around at sessions revealed a huge range of thoughts and theories on play, and I found this a welcome challenge after attending playwork events and conferences that often preach to the converted and where there is orthodoxy of opinion. I have been challenging much of this in my own thinking so it was refreshing to be able to engage in debate around this with non-playworkers, especially with ones who show an appreciation of what we do.

I think as a sector there is much to be gained by individual playworkers engaging with other academic disciplines, as, amongst other things, it requires us to justify, challenge and reflect on what we may take to be the obvious. It also helps get us out of our silo and takes us to places where the chips on our shoulders are meaningless. It’s refreshing to talk about play from a non-playwork perspective while being able to call upon and contribute some of the really important theoretical work that has been produced within playwork. This is different from the important debates happening within playwork about playwork and about play in a playwork setting.

Although I may be an accidental ‘ludic geographer’, much of the debates, for example on new materialities and post humanism taking place within geography resonate with my interests and I have been able to incorporate them into my thinking on play, and I am sure this may be equally applicable in other disciplines. I also think it has positively influenced my playwork practice, which is extremely important to me. I think there’s a real synergy between academic study, particularly at postgrad level, and face-to-face work, and while it’s not always easy to juggle the two I’ve been finding it extremely rewarding and would encourage anyone to investigate it.


Between play: what happens in the gaps?

I’ve been thinking about play and playwork today, and playing around with thinking about what happens in the gaps between one bit of play and the next, and what, as playworkers, our role covers. I think we’re all pretty good at identifying play. When it’s happening we can all go ‘oh yeah they’re playing’.  So, when a play frame is annihilated, does a period of ‘non-play’ take place before the next frame develops? When hunger kicks in or the child with ‘anger issues’ kicks off, is this still play as we know it?

Geographer Doreen Massey talks about how one widespread view in the minority world (e.g. Western, neoliberal countries) conceives space as a surface, with stuff on this surface and therefore separate from other stuff. I wonder if as playworkers we see play as discrete stuff sitting on a surface, separated by not-play from other play stuff. Comments on a postcard please.

Massey also draws on Deleuze and Boundas and talks about how we often value stuff which is identifiable as discrete rather than stuff that is more elusive, or in motion and harder to pin down. This might include valuing the outcome rather than the process, or ‘results at the expense of tendencies’ (Massey, 2005), although her meaning is broader than just this.

I’m wondering if as playworkers this distance/space/time between what we identify as play and not-play is conceptually problematic. Or perhaps not. Since the playworker’s role is facilitating play, are we only ‘doing playwork’ when children actually play, or rather, doing what we identify as play? What about when a child wants to talk about how they’re being bullied at school? Does talking to them change you from a playworker into something else?

I’ve heard Meynell says ‘the role of a playworker is to do whatever they need to to make the play happen’, and I think this is really useful. This to me acknowledges talking to a child about their bullying, or coaching and making space/time for a ten-year old to swing an axe to chop wood for the fire is equally important as participating in a game of manhunt or sourcing materials for dens. It says to me that all stuff – for playworkers – is connected – not just sitting on a surface waiting for us to identify it as play or not-play. It also suggests that we would do well to value (as well as continually challenge and reflect on) all of the processes and tendencies we contribute to the messy space/time assemblage that makes up what it is we do.


Massey, D. B. (2005). For space. London: SAGE.


Self doctor-ing aspirations

When I was a teenager I had no interest in going to University or doing any kind of studying at all. I was interested in English and architectural design and did well at them, but that wasn’t what I considered to be proper studying – that was more like playing. I spent most of my days skipping classes and the Canadian equivalent of hanging round behind the bike shed, which involved sitting in people’s cars in the student parking lot smoking and drinking cheap alcohol – car ownership at 16 does have its perks, especially in Ontario winters – brrr!!.

Needless to say I barely graduated, but I did, scraping through my grade 12 with the minimum of marks. Back then you needed grade 13 to go to university, but since I didn’t want to go anyway that was no biggie – at the time. Six months of getting up at an ungodly early hour and slogging on public transport in the winter cold and dark to a poorly paid job soon started me thinking however, and I applied, at the very last minute, to attend the Theatre Arts Technical Production Programme at Ryerson Polytechnic.

Living a bohemian lifestyle in Toronto was just about my idea of heaven at the time – and still ranks pretty highly. Music, clubs, parties and multiculturalism were the order of the day, as well as the independence of my own place. While I loved being part of the theatre, I still wasn’t enamoured of the hard academic slog. I was fine working all hours building scenery, hanging lights, and learning about directing, but studying the physics of load bearing materials – no matter how relevant to staging – was something that I blanked and failed at!

Over the fullness of time, and here we’re talking about a couple of decades, my attitude changed. Being exposed to new ideas at Ryerson, particularly the politics of punk led me to appreciate poets, writers and revolutionaries. I learned that there were others with a thirst for knowledge and desire to change the world and who had developed ideas and had acted upon them. I began to read and question, and somewhere down the road began to appreciate that there was some benefit in structured learning, and that this would require the appropriate work habits – talk about a shock to the system!

Moving forward to the present day, I am getting to grips with being a PhD candidate. Although I veer between the fear of being found out as an imposter – someone who’s just playing at it – and thinking that I can actually do this thing – on balance it’s incredibly exciting. Even though it sounds trite, it’s a bit of an honour and privilege to be doing it, particularly since my research was designed around the interests I developed doing my M.A. and the University is covering my fees. I do feel the pressure to do well, in fact to excel, and that’s pretty scary, but since my life has been full of risk-taking and leaping blindly into the unknown, that’s ok.

I’m going to be writing quite a bit about this in the future as there are a huge number of issues that it’s raising – from personal insecurities to the class struggle and entitlement. I hope if you’re reading this you find it strikes a chord – and don’t hesitate to follow my blog, comment or drop me a line.

Post-road musings

The last few weeks have been incredibly busy and productive; in fact they’ve been a bit of a road trip without the rock n’roll excesses (but with good red wine and great company) – culminating in the attack of a killer cold which caught me unawares on the long train trip home.

I’ve been meaning to write separate blogs about each of the things that have been happening, but the time’s been slipping away so I’ve decided to capture them all together even though this is probably not going to do them justice, but hey ho, here we go.

As those who know me know, I’ve been embarking on a long-term change of direction, moving away from the currently barren shores of play policy and the withering path of playwork strategy towards a more academic landscape, while trying to steer clear of that ivory tower! Although the news from The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on A Fit and Healthy Childhood calling for a new national Play Strategy (from Adrian Voce – Policy for Play) is really promising, having been heavily involved in national policy development in playwork during the last administration I’m happy for others to take up the mantle.

Except I realise that’s not entirely accurate, which brings me to one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had in the last few years. I’m a very active and proud trade unionist, and for a long time I’ve been the Playwork Convenor on the National Committee of the Community and Youth Worker’s Section of Unite the Union – a bit of a mouthful if there ever was one! I often feel like the lone voice for playwork surrounded by a sea of (extremely supportive) youth workers. In fact at the recent National Section Conference I was described as the Union’s ‘Lone Ranger’ of playwork (note to self – need Stetson).

I wrote a motion for Conference calling for the Section’s name to be changed to include Playworkers. This was unanimously carried and we will now be known as the ‘Community, Youth and Playworker’s Section’. I think this is pretty great – historic even – and I’m deeply touched by the support I have always had from my own branch (Devon), who moved the motion, and from everyone else in the Section – and the former CYWU. So if you’re reading this, thanks, as I think you’ve helped move playwork along immeasurably by this.

Having said that, I’m now realising that the ante has been raised and the workload will increase immensely – talk about fashioning a rod for your own back!, I’m pretty much maxed out in what I can do and will be calling on others to get involved – so when you hear that ‘Hi ho Silver’ in the distance, know that I’ll be knocking on your door soon!

I feel like I’m starting the stretch the limits of what a readable blog should be, so I’ll finish by saying how much I’ve enjoyed starting my PhD. It’s a bit scary as well (and as a black belt I don’t scare easy!), but I’ve been really impressed by the structure and support that Leicester have in place and have met some great people – I’ve even got my own desk (in a shared office) with two monitors attached to my computer!! Maybe I’m just easily bought! The travel and expense going from Devon to Leicester once a week is a bit of a killer though – so offers of a bed for the night/extra paid work/contributions gratefully received.

Re-reading this post I realise I’ve missed out tons of stuff, so I’ll just have to step up my writing schedule. Before I go and open the ritual Friday night wine and look again at the post-it notes I’m experimenting with to generate a PhD storyboard (thanks Natasha), a few more road trip thanks – Meynell for the company and whiskey, Hattie and Chris for the bed, food and company, Sara, Lisa and Kev for Devon Branch support, Bob for entertainment on a long rail-replacement bus trip regaling us with tales of his involvement in the South African anti-apartheid underground, Marie and Colenzo for CYWP Conference support – and in fact everyone at Conference – and finally Deb and Ryan for putting up with me being away.

Stay tuned for the next instalment folks 🙂 Yippee yi-ah (or am I getting my movie references mixed?)

The power of big things

Earlier this week I was engaged in one of my normal evening activities, running a junior youth club in a Devon market town. While it’s categorically not a playwork setting and has an emphasis on informal education, when you get a bunch of 11-13 year olds together on a hot summer evening you know there’s going to be some play involved!

Den building was on the schedule for the evening (really solid learning outcomes – details on request), and since there were a couple of carpet showrooms locally I scrounged about 20 huge cardboard rolls, the kind they wrap carpets around. They were each about 5m long by about 20cm in diameter and I carried them on my shoulder back to the youth centre – paying due respect to Health and Safety of course!!

As it’s getting close to the end of the term and many of the young people are getting ready to move up to the next school, a lot of them are a bit too cool to play so I didn’t want to prescribe what should be done with the tubes or actually suggest den-building. I decided to cut down some of the tubes so as to provide a combination of lengths and leave them in a pile. When I was asked what they were for I shrugged my shoulders nonchalantly and told them they could do whatever they wanted except hit each other with them –although they could hit ‘scrap on scrap’.

It did take a little while for the young people to explore and manipulate what they could do, and the sight of three boys trying to sword fight with huge tubes many times their height – in a restricted space – was hilarious. The tubes were just the right diameter for getting arms into, so we had a number of human/cardboard hybrids wandering around exploring what these assemblages afforded, offering great merriment to all.

Finally den building ensued, and two different structures emerged, held together with tape and draped with orange plastic safety netting. One was a traditional lean-to tepee affair, the other consisted of tubes jammed across an unused outside passageway in a criss-cross fashion – and also acting as a missile launcher.

The element I was most interested in in all of this was how young people engaged with the scale of the tubes and with their physical properties. Being able to manipulate things which were many times their height captured the young people’s imaginations and really engaged them – so often we provide things that are ‘child-size’ and challenging this can offer opportunities for some great play. The cardboard-ness of the tubes was also an interesting element. The tubes were hard but it didn’t take too much effort to break them and at the end of the session there was a bit of a frenzy of destruction which was equally rewarding – and the remnants cleared up easily and were headed straight for recycling. A few young people begged to take tubes home and they proudly walked off carrying some of the shorter lengths – I sure there were a few bemused parents that evening!

All in all a highly successful evening all around – and not a mobile phone in sight – most unusual but reinforcing one of my avenues of research about the power of different things! As a youth worker, (or technically Senior Youth Support Worker in Training) I felt I had offered some great informal learning, and as a playworker in disguise I felt I had subverted the system and facilitated some really great play opportunities.

I blog, therefore … ?

I’ll admit it, this post is really just an experiment, an attempt to see if the technology works and suits me. I’m planning on blogging (semi) regularly as there’s actually quite a bit I want to say – which won’t surprise those that know me 🙂 But for now, keep tuned. I’m thinking that the next blog will be be musings on the work I’ve been doing around assemblages and affordance in children’s play, so why not check back here in a week or so.   Cheers Chris